“Hammer & Tongue have reinvented the medium for the hip hop generation”
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A history of Hammer & Tongue:
Hammer & Tongue + Slipjam:B – 10th Annual
Poets vs MCs, Concorde 2, Brighton
Two feisty crews of word merchants fight it out in entertaining style
For a decade these two outfits, the Hammer & Tongue poetry collective and the Slipjam:B crew of hip hop MCs, have been taking each other on. They both run their own successful nights but this evening is their yearly face-off. As it reaches its climax, after a series of rounds, the two units are onstage together, MCs stage right, poets stage left, taking turns to front up, laying into each other, riding a thin line between affable digs and bawdy insult.
Poet Michael James Parker heads to the front. Flick-haired, 6’ 4” and wearing a blissed grin, his verse goes for the existential nub of things. In the greater scheme of life and death, he observes, the MCs are nothing and neither are the poets, the only difference being that the MCs deludedly think they really are something. He finishes by pointing out that after 10 years this isn’t a battle jam – it’s a war! – and leads the packed venue in an a capella rendition of Edwin Starr’s “War” – “What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” Given there are no bands playing and no beats rolling, the atmosphere is unexpectedly electric.
The conclusive battle round is really what everyone’s here for and it doesn’t disappoint
Earlier the night had warmed up with members of both teams throwing down verses, followed by a section wherein the MCs freestyled over music provided by DJ Ideal. What’s immediately noticeable is how each poet has their own look, from Spliff Richard’s weed-tinged, crusty-rasta appearance to the bizarre sideburns’n’glasses schtick of Chris Parkinson (whom one rapper rightly points out looks like a Victorian comedy turn). The MCs, on the other hand, are more homogenous, mostly adhering to the low-key leisurewear favoured by the hip-hop community, all fleeces and hoodies, although one – Big Dave – stands out with his Mötley Crüe T-shirt.
The freestyle section showcases the MCs’ strongpoint, improvisation, although it veers from the funny, when they each start bigging up unlikely varieties of car – the 2CV or Mini Metro – to sequences when repeated cries of “Yo! Yo! Yo!” allow noticeable breathing space. It also showcases how the poets must survive on sheer wit and personal perspective whereas DJ Ideal’s beats provide the MCs with a certain amount of cover, their words occasionally lost in the pleasingly danceable grooves.
The conclusive battle round is really what everyone’s here for and it doesn’t disappoint. Adam the Rapper opens by mocking the way poetry crowds are forced to applaud even the wettest outpourings, provided they’re supposedly heartfelt, whereas MCs have to earn crowd approval the hard way. Host and poet Rosy Carrick, clad in a figure-hugging dress, comes straight back at him reading a deadpan piece stating that poetry is “parent to the art of rap” before tearing gruesomely into rap’s locker-room machismo, conjuring a sweaty trainspotter-ish boys’ club, including one notably repulsive line about MCs firing spoken “faeces into each others’ laps”. Thus it proceeds, the MCs likening a poet’s grasp of the microphone to a crack whore negotiating “a phallus – a spectacle of incompetence” or claiming one poet’s emotions are so hollow “he doesn’t know how to spit, he prefers to swallow.” The poets respond with variety, from Chris Parkinson questioning why anyone would ever want to be an MC to Spliff Richard’s heartfelt verses against homophobia.
The most accomplished piece may have been the extraordinary rhythmic, biographical story-telling of MCs Jon Clark and Joe Schenk, a truly theatrical dialogue that will have taken hours of practice. The MCs’ cause, however, is undermined by a rap from a trio near the end wherein the quirky poetess Yvo Luna is accused of smelling like tuna. It might rhyme but it spoke of hip-hop’s latent sexism and the Brighton audience responded with a rising tide of booing.
In the end Adam the Rapper and Rosy Carrick, who it soon became clear were a cheerfully sparring item despite being on opposing teams, asked the crowd to vote with their voices. Judging from the noise and floor-stomping, the poets won the day, although the MCs did not directly acknowledge the fact. Either way, this meeting of feisty wordsmiths provided a heady night’s entertainment that engaged the mind and amused the spirit.
Watch Spliff Richard perform his anti-homophobia piece “Whatever Happened to One Love”